What’s in the chocolate syrup that is stirred into milk and served to those kids who are always smiling in the commercials on TV? What does it have to do with wood-pulp industry by-products? Read on…
Recently, I looked at the labels on the bottles of chocolate syrup in the supermarket. Most of them listed “high fructose corn syrup” as the main ingredient, then corn syrup, and another sugar. Cocoa was on the list of ingredients, but often 4th, after all the sugars. Then there were the polysorbates, the mono and diglycerides, xanthan gum, artificial flavors and vanillin. Vanillin? If you want to delve deep into chemistry, just look up “vanillin” online. It’s pretty depressing: vanillin is synthesized from a by-product of the wood pulp industry called lignin, or an even more mysterious word called guiaicol (described as a yellow-tinged oil) and at that point the multi-syllabic words and chemical processes made my brain tired, and I quit reading. I am pretty sure that Walter White, the chemistry teacher from “Breaking Bad”, would be a helpful resource when trying to understand how vanillin is manufactured. But whether or not you stayed awake in chemistry class, it doesn’t take long to realize that vanillin is not what we want to be consuming or feeding to our families, especially in something as simple as chocolate milk. Many websites advise avoiding vanillin in the diets of children with ADHD (along with other artificial colors and flavors).
I looked up homemade chocolate syrup recipes online and for the most part, they called for sugar, cocoa powder, and a few harmless extras like salt, or butter or vanilla extract.
But I was trying to find something even more basic, and healthier. Most of the ordinary cocoa powders that are on the grocery store shelves today are labelled “Dutch process” or “processed with alkali”. That’s not an entirely bad thing. Pure cocoa powder (the kind our grandmothers baked with) can be a little bitter. So a Dutch chemist figured out how to process the cocoa to make it less acidic. [This is why some vintage recipes that call for “cocoa” don’t come out quite as nicely as you had expected. Some of the recipes, passed down from years ago, used cocoa that had not been Dutch processed, and the leavenings are affected (the baking soda and baking powders, for example). So it’s important to know if the recipe you’re using calls for Dutch processed or natural cocoa. If it’s from a magazine from the 1940s, or on your grandma’s recipe cards, use natural cocoa. Recipes today often specify “Dutch process cocoa” and the other ingredients are adjusted accordingly. It’s possible to buy natural cocoa, but it requires reading all the labels and some stores don’t carry anything but the Dutch processed types.]
Processing cocoa with alkali strips it of some of the healthy properties of chocolate, or else the healthy properties are greatly reduced. You’ve probably heard that dark chocolate has anti-oxidant properties, and contains flavanols, which can help lower blood pressure and contribute to overall health (when consumed in moderation which, sadly, means we cannot exist on a diet of 100% dark chocolate). When cocoa is “dutched”, those anti-oxidants and flavanols are significantly lessened. So it’s not so much the process as the loss of the healthy attributes of pure chocolate that make Dutch process cocoa not as preferable a choice when using cocoa. The problem is, it’s getting harder and harder to find natural, unprocessed, old-fashioned cocoa.
This led me to trying to make as simple a chocolate syrup as I could. After a little experimenting, and remembering that raw local honey and maple syrup are good choices of sweeteners, I made this:
Homemade Chocolate Honey Syrup
3/4 cup raw local honey 8 ounces pure unsweetened chocolate (I used two 4 ounce Ghiradelli 100% Cacao bars) 1/2 cup water 1/2 tsp salt (I used Redmond Real Salt, which is unrefined and contains minerals) 1 tsp vanilla (good quality, without additives or caramel coloring; see note below)
Combine all ingredients in a saucepan and melt to combine over low heat, stirring occasionally. Store in a jar or bottle. Since this is just honey, chocolate and water basically, it really doesn’t need refrigeration, as none of those are routinely refrigerated.
I found that the next day, the syrup was pretty thick, so I stirred in another half cup of water (didn’t heat it, just stirred the water in.) It all combined smoothly. You can adjust the water amount until it’s as thin as you’d like.
I’m going to experiment a little with this recipe. I’m going to make another batch and instead of just melting it, I’m going to boil it for about 3 minutes to see if that results in a slightly thinner product. If you try that, let me know what you think!
My daughter taste-tested this and loved it. She said she could taste the honey but that wasn’t a negative point. I did use a rather strong local honey, which was what I had in the pantry, so if you prefer a milder taste, try to find a local honey that is milder or sweeter. Many local farmers’ markets or stores like Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s will have several honey options to choose from. You can usually get good advice from those sources about the different tastes of different honeys, and which are milder and which are stronger.
Use this chocolate syrup to make chocolate milk (your choice of milk: oat milk, almond, soy, lactose-free, or regular dairy milk). Drizzle over ice cream or pound cake. If it’s too thick, heat it a little or stir in a little water.
Note: I make my own homemade vanilla extract, from brandy or vodka and vanilla beans. Ina Garten, the Barefoot Contessa from the Food Network, has an excellent and simple method of making vanilla extract that is available online. This allows you to use vanilla that consists of just two ingredients, without caramel color, or additives. But it’s important to remember while homemade vanilla takes just a few minutes to make, it requires several months to develop the flavors. You can make a couple of bottles in minutes, and then store them in a dark cool place for several months until they’re ready to use. So start now and the vanilla will be perfect by late summer or for holiday gifts or hostess gifts in the fall and winter.